Monday, May 30, 2011

"When you strip away enough manmade elements, places take on this grandiosity...": Ryan Redford on Oliver Sherman

Sherman Oliver (Garret Dillahunt) was shot in the head in an unnamed war. He survived, yet sustained a severe brain injury. During the months he was hospitalized he thought his name was Oliver Sherman because he couldn’t understand that his paperwork addressed him last name first. Everything in his life seems backward now. The first we see of him in
Oliver Sherman isn’t his face but the back of his head, the hair close-cropped so his scar remains visible. Sherman tracks down Franklin (Donal Logue), the solider who saved his life, at his rural home. In the seven years since they last saw each other Franklin got a job, married Irene (Molly Parker), and had kids. Sherman became a drifter and an alcoholic. He’s polite and unassuming, but it’s unclear how long he’s planning to stay with Franklin and his family, or what he plans to do besides taking Franklin out drinking every night. Based on Rachel Ingalls’ short story ‘Veterans,’ Oliver Sherman chronicles a troubled friendship between two vets. They weren’t really friends when they served together, but now seem inextricably bound by a shared trauma.

Oliver Sherman is the feature debut of writer/director Ryan Redford and is remarkably assured. Neither a word nor an image is wasted. Every scene accumulates in quiet portent, buoyed by immaculate performances from the three leads and the dusky photography of In the Bedroom’s Antonio Calvache. The story recalls Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner, though Oliver Sherman also reminded me of Frankenstein: it concerns a sort of monster, stitched together yet somehow incomplete, who never asked for his life and now roams the earth, fundamentally apart from the civilized world, resembling other men yet never quite succeeding at assimilating their ways. (The only significant flaw in Oliver Sherman is that several characters’ don’t seem to catch on to the rather obvious fact that Sherman is severely mentally impaired.) This is one of the strongest Canadian films of recent years and deserves far more attention than it’s received since its premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It’s now available on DVD from Mongrel Media.

writer/director Ryan Redford

Redford first heard of Ingalls’
Times Like These, the collection that featured ‘Veterans,’ when it was published in 2005, but it wasn’t until after he’d spent four years developing what he thought would be his first feature, “a strange, violent western” that proved too ambitious and costly, that he came across the book and devoured ‘Veterans’ in one sitting. It wasn’t obviously cinematic, but possessed a “timeless, mythic element” that was right up Redford’s alley. “‘Veterans’ addressed these big life and death themes,” Redford explains, “the validity of violence, how one goes about becoming a proper citizen, and how difficult that can be.”

I spoke with Redford last February.

JB: I’m uncertain where this originates from culturally, but watching
Oliver Sherman I kept thinking about this old notion that when you save someone’s life you assume responsibility for it.

Ryan Redford: I think it’s Japanese.

JB: This seems to be at the heart of Franklin’s dilemma, his wondering if saving Sherman was a good deed or a kind of curse.

RR: That and the feeling that under slightly different circumstances he might have wound up like Sherman. For all Franklin knew Sherman might have died after they last saw each other, so when he shows up seven years later there’s this shock and horror that Franklin was the cause of this man’s fractured existence.

JB: Place plays an interesting role in
Oliver Sherman. Do you come from a rural community?

RR: Not really. My family moved us from Vancouver to Aurora, Ontario when I was 16. I lived there for five or six years and in that time Aurora went from being fairly rural to increasingly developed, with Starbucks, Blockbusters, and strip malls. But I’d always found myself drawn to Andrew Wyeth paintings. I like that poetic something that untouched environments have. When you strip away enough manmade elements, places take on this grandiosity that’s always appealed to me.

JB: Are there rural films that serve as touchstones for you?

RR: I’m not comparing this movie to anything of his in any way, but an obvious source of inspiration is Terrence Malick’s films. Malick has this very formal approach, very grounded in nature…

JB: And very philosophical.

RR: Yeah, there’s something mythic to his movies. I also had the crew watch Andrei Zvyaginstev’s
The Return, just to get them in the right frame of mind.

Oliver Sherman doesn’t concern itself with connective geography. We’re either at this very vulnerable looking house surrounded by fields and woods, a small, cramped public library, or this womb-like bar with no women, but there’s no sense of how these places fit together geographically.

RR: I hate establishing shots. I like big landscapes. I like pretty pictures. I hate starting in wide and then getting closer and closer. There’s something pleasingly disorienting about starting a scene and not knowing where you are. Only at the end of a scene will I maybe cut to a wide to finish it and underscore the isolation.

JB: The lack of orientation gave the film this vaguely dreamlike quality that seems to mirror Sherman’s experience of the world, given his cognitive deficiencies.

RR: I’m not always so wild about reflecting what’s going on with the character in the compositions, but I realize there are many shots where I’m making Sherman tiny and solitary within the frame. So I guess sometimes I was doing that on purpose. So much of the storytelling has to do with withholding, so maybe that’s part of it too.

JB: Can you say something about your decision to withhold a key act of violence?

RR: I don’t think we see any acts of violence in the film, but they’re alluded to. Some would argue that showing that scene you’re referring to might have provided more of a punch in the gut, but I always thought it would be too over the top in this kind of restrained, quiet movie.

JB: I think there are ways you could have pulled it off, but it would have supplied a catharsis inappropriate for that point in the story. It’s also nice that we only later discover what exactly happened after the fade to black.

RR: I think you’re right.

JB: There’s a photograph in Franklin’s house of a horse’s eye that seems to be keeping watch over he action. It caught my eye because by isolating the eye the horse seems so spooked, and because Sherman’s relationship with animals, whether its the barking dog he spits on or his story about how to kill a fox, seems antagonistic and important to the story.

RR: That was the production designer. I was initially resistant to it. I don’t like having art on walls in my movies. I don’t like referencing other artists. I don’t like art that’s supposed to be metaphorical. I concede that it is a pretty unsettling image, but I can’t take credit for it.

JB: What about the music box playing that Beethoven piano sonata?

RR: I was just searching for something with the right rhythm, given how we’d cut it. I’d seen
The Man Who Wasn’t There recently…

JB: I was going to ask you about that. Once you’ve seen that movie it’s hard to forget that tune.

RR: Yeah, and it just happened to be on this sound effects collection. I’d hated everything I’d heard until that point, and then I saw that movie on TV at 1.00 in the morning, tried it out, and it worked. We were actually going to replace it forever but never got around to it.

JB: The film has such a distinct sensibility. Were there certain elements that you wanted in your first feature regardless of what the story or genre was going to be?

RR: My friends make fun of me for it, but every one of my shorts—and I made plenty of them—had this timeless element and these rural settings, a sort of displaced or lyrical version of reality. So I’m sure that when I was reading stories and looking for adaptable material that I had that aesthetic I’d developed in the back of my mind. Having said that, I think it might be time to branch out a little.
Oliver Sherman was the period at the end of that sentence, so to speak.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron, 1949 - 2011

Man, this is some sad, awful news. Only 62 years old. And just last night my friend Alvaro was spinning into the wee hours at Not My Dog and got everyone's ears pricked right up (and many of their asses grooving) when he laid down 'New York Is Killing Me.' (I guess Scott-Heron wasn't kidding when he came up with that title.) Actually, every time we have a party and I play anything by GSC, inevitably, someone, usually someone on the young side, who might not typically be all that curious about the train of songs working through the stereo, will suddenly stop whatever they were doing and ask me: "Who is
that?" Pieces of a Man has been with me a long, long time. I'm New Here, with its beautifully personalized eponymous Bill Callahan cover, was one of my favourite records of the past several years, although I play it rarely, because I think the liner notes are quite right about it being something to listen to in a very private, quiet, nighttime space. It seemed like Scott-Heron was enjoying this incredible resurgence of creative energy. I can't quite believe that's it...

Times obit here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ocean memory mirror: Solaris on blu-ray

Andrei Tarkovsky’s is very much a wet cinema, and
Solaris (1972), his first foray into science fiction, newly available on blu-ray from Criterion, represents his densest and most haunting use of water, not only as an elemental motif, but as a fundamental narrative resource. Inspired by (though far from beholden to) the novel of the same name by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris finds its baffled protagonist, a psychologist of clinical demeanor named Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), on a space station hovering over the oceanic surface of the eponymous distant planet, a planet that seems to be delivering to its visitors resurrected figures from their past. The waters of Solaris are a source of life, or rather deathlessness. Kris is visited and revisited by his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who suicided some ten years ago. Her memories are initially so miniscule that she’s even surprised by her own face in the mirror, but very quickly the old/original Hari’s memories accumulate. At first Kris tries to get rid of her, but she just comes back. Like the lovers of Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Kris and Hari appear to be condemned to (or blessed with) a closed circuit of eternal return, at least for as long as Kris stays within Solaris’ inscrutable orbit.

Solaris was my first Tarkovsky, and its lulling opening images of a pond and its undulating vegetation leave deep impressions on me still. That first half-hour or so, an earthbound prologue entirely absent from Lem’s book, set in and around Kris’ family’s dacha, impart a vital sense of Tarkovsky’s attachment to nature just before he launches his (and our) imagination into space. A sudden shower passes through the countryside as Kris wanders the dacha’s grounds, while the sun continues to beam down and cast objects in a dewy glow. Children play in the woods. A horse ambles around. Though a city of cold, teeming freeways lays somewhere nearby, though this seems to be a world made of men largely suffering in the absence of women, we get the impression that this is close enough to paradise—as close as we’ve any right to. Before Kris leaves on his mission he starts a small fire outside the dacha and begins burning piles of old research notes and personal items. In a sense he’s taking his memories and turning them into smoke and ash, yet these memories will soon be resurrected through the mysterious formative powers of Solaris’ oceans. The two scientists left on Solaris, already more than familiar with the phenomenon that will afflict the newcomer, suggest that these needy, tactile ghosts, or “guests,” as they refer to them, have “something to do with conscience.” Are they referring to guilt over decades-old wrongdoings or guilt over their more recent bombarding of the Solaris ocean with radiation, which they say prompted the first apparitions? There is also the suggestion, made not by the scientists so much as by Tarkovsky himself, that whether Solaris is explored further or simply abandoned, some trace of those who came to it will remain, perhaps as tiny islands upon which memories replay themselves over and over again.

Solaris features images and ideas that continue to alternately fascinate, frighten and move me. Tarkovsky’s trademark expansive tracking shots and elliptical storytelling only heighten the film’s potency. The only flaws that stick with me after seeing it again arise from Tarkovsky’s disinterest in the allure of outer space (could he not have done a little more with the journey to Solaris?) and from Banionis’ performance, which feels lacking or vague, occasionally coming off more as that of an actor at a loss as to what he’s to be doing than it does as that of a character tormented by inexplicable events and a resurgence of dormant emotions. (Still, Banionis has the sort of face that rewards lingering shots, and looks kind of great while stumbling around the derelict space station in his underpants and monogrammed pajama top.) At one point a character echoes what were surely the sentiments of the film’s director when he says: “We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror.” The enduring enigma and poetry of Tarkovsky’s work can be located in its capacity to hold up a mirror to the human soul and stir its murkiest existential questions, and in the curious case of Solaris, that mirror actually covers the surface of an entire world.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A liquid abyss: Diabolique

Its opening credits appear over the face of a scum-slathered swimming pool. Before long it’ll convert a bathtub into an instrument of murder, and that neglected pool will become an improvised sepulcher, enveloping human remains when full, resembling an open grave when drained. The very sight of it transformed into an empty cavity causes a woman to faint. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” someone remarks in explanation.
Diabolique (1955) is an immaculately controlled study of corruption, hinging on the precarious alliance that might be taken up by a wife and her husband’s mistress upon agreeing that some people truly deserve to die. It’s also among the most elegant examples of the cinema’s use of water as a sort of liquid abyss, something mysterious, unstable, untrustworthy, and often tellingly opaque.

Diabolique was the seventh feature from director Henri-George Clouzot and the high-water mark of his commercial and critical success. Liberally adapted from the novel Celle qui n’était plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (whose narrative conception was similar, though it featured a very different configuration of characters), the film brims with Clouzot’s characteristic evocation of rampant dread and decay. Set in a dreary provincial boy’s school, the story concerns the killing of the sadistic, miserly headmaster Michel (Paul Meurisse) by his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot, the director’s wife), daughter of a wealthy Venezuelan family and the school’s financial benefactor, and Nicole (Simone Signoret), one of the school’s teachers and Michel’s undisguised lover. Their world is already poisonous: the staff is largely uninterested in or simply cruel to the students, the salads are spoiled and the fish is rotten (which doesn’t dissuade Michel from forcing Christina to eat it in the film’s most appallingly unforgettable scene of humiliation). Someone mentions that it’s important to take holidays because “the body needs to eliminate its toxins,” yet it’s difficult to imagine how long a holiday one would require to flush out all the toxic sludge, both literal and figurative, that might accumulate in one’s body while existing in this place.

The murder of Michel seems to go off without a hitch, until his body, transported in a large basket (rhymes with casket) and deposited in the school’s pool, fails to stay put. There’s a secret, malevolent force at work that may or may not be supernatural (and the film’s final scene maintains this ambiguity even after it seems to have been resolved). The ongoing failure to secure knowledge of Michel’s corpse’s whereabouts begins to grind away at the women’s psyches, most notably that of Christina, who suffers a heart condition and seem the more guilt-ridden of the two. Though less experienced than her costars, Véra Clouzot (who herself suffered a heart problem, one that would end her life only five years alter) gives a superb performance, imbuing Christina with a distinctive fragility that reveals itself only gradually, building up to a climatic scene that encloses the actress in a Val Lewtonesque chamber of shadows and dread, and capitalizes beautifully on her arresting eyes and physical rigidity. Signoret is characteristically confident and intriguingly evasive, her coolness recalling some of Lauren Bacall’s best performances from the previous decade. Clouzot’s exacting approach to suspense, notably devoid of scoring, depended greatly on his leads to map out the incremental twists in the narrative, and Madame Clouzot and Signoret fulfill their duties and some.

Criterion’s new DVD and blu-ray release of
Diabolique (which they originally released on DVD man years ago now) arrives with a gorgeous new transfer, new cover art, and new special features, most notably an interview with historian Kim Newman concerning the film’s influence on countless thrillers and horror films. Yet the filmmaker who most readily springs to mind whenever I watch Diabolique is one that Newman fails to mention: Roman Polanski, whose morbid humour, commitment to high craftsmanship, fascination with perversion and penchant for nosy neighbours make him a very strong candidate for the contemporary filmmaker whose best work most closely resembles that of Clouzot’s.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Curling: enigmas lovingly dusted with snow

Alone within the precise, fixed frame of
Curling’s opening shot, her face sprayed with freckles, her gaze almost blank yet somehow touching, Julyvonne (Philomène Bilodeau) is visiting the optometrist. There’s something wrong with her eyes, she’s told, or hasn’t she noticed? She hasn’t. Julyvonne’s 12 years old, home-schooled, and her interaction with the world beyond the rural Quebec bungalow she shares with her father, Jean-Francois (Emmanuel Bilodeau), has been minimal. But she leaves the optometrist’s with her first pair of glasses, and what follows, at least within her share of Curling, is a story about seeing things for the first time. Some of these things may not be real. Maybe.

Jean-Francois is a shy, fearful man with a weathered, angular face. He has two jobs: he works maintenance at a bowling alley and cleans rooms at a motel. Kennedy (Roc LaFortune, a real card), his superior at the bowling alley, calls Jean-Francois “Moustache,” perhaps because the broom-thicket of hair below Jean-Francois’ hooked nose seems to take up so much of his face, perhaps because Jean-Francois’ reserve is so unnerving that the boss, a fan of obscure euphemisms is any case, just needs something to endow his only employee with a little character. At one point in
Curling, after making a chilling discovery one night on a desolate road, Jean-Francois does something in secret that would barely seem pardonable in a child, much less a 40ish single father. Yet I think we’re inclined to believe the best in him because he’s gentle, and because he so clearly loves Julyvonne, however misguidedly that love manifests.

Curling is the most recent film from the Quebecois writer-director Denis Côté, whose 2009 film Carcasses, which shifted from something like a documentary about a junk collector to the weirdest variation on the home invasion thriller I’ve ever come across, ranks as one of the freshest and most remarkable Canadian hybrids of the last decade. Though frequently visiting rather antiseptic interiors, Curling contains many beautiful images, of snow blowing across a barren highway, an inflatable Santa descending a ladder, of a tiger inexplicably lazing in the white countryside. Though its characters find themselves in morbid and bizarre situations, their responses are comprehendible: there’s a coherent psychology at work here, even while we’re immersed in strangeness.

I emphasize
Curling’s relative accessibility partly just out of annoyance with some other reviews and features I’ve found (cough-cough, Globe and Mail, cough-cough) that paint the film as perversely opaque. To be sure, there are mysteries: that pool of blood on a motel room bed, the tiger (obviously), the frozen carcasses dusted with snow, who become something akin to Julyvonne’s imaginary friends. (Are they imaginary?) It’s true that Côté doesn’t like to explain things. For example: Why are they playing ten-pin with whose itty-bitty bowling balls? Why do Jean-Francois and Julyvonne listen to ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ on music nights? Perplexing! Yet somehow we make it through. In fact, Curling (sorry, Côté) is almost a heartwarming comedy. It’s about an overprotective father learning to let his daughter grow up. It’s about a middle-aged man learning to emerge from his shell. It’s about silly costumes, and, indeed, the odd allure of curling. And it does, in its way, urge us to reach out, even in the frozen darkness.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In high Gere, with nowhere to go: Breathless

There’s this scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s
Breathless (1960) where Jean Seberg holds up a reproduction of a Renoir for Jean-Paul Belmondo’s approval. “It’s not bad,” says Belmondo. “Renoir’s a really great painter,” says Seberg. Belmondo doesn’t budge: “I said it’s not bad.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s a little like my feelings about Breathless itself. It formed the crest of the French New Wave. It’s a landmark on several fronts. Godard’s one of our true geniuses. But once you know more of Godard’s work and comprehend his debut’s historical significance, Breathless is finally, by the high standards set by Godard and his peers, not bad. In any case it’s no horrifying sacrilege to me that it was remade some years later, in Hollywood, with way more money, and Richard Gere. Worse things have happened to the movies. And Godard's Breathless is still there for us to see whenever we want.

The other
Breathless (1983) was directed by Jim McBride, whose David Holzman’s Diary (1967), was not without its own postmodern ambitions. McBride co-wrote it with Holzman star Kit Carson, who wrote significant parts of Paris, Texas (1984). This Breathless reverses a number of Godard’s configurations: the girl’s a Parisian in America, rather than an American in Paris; the mise en scène’s characterized by flamboyant, art-directed artifice (rear projection, gels that swath entire scenes in one primary colour) rather than guerilla-style filmmaking (which yields its own sort of artifice); it attempts (rather laughably) to justify its characters’ actions, to psychologize them, rather than chalk their violence and betrayals up to genre dictates. Yet it shocked and sort of fascinated me just how faithful the other Breathless is to the story (if not the spirit) of the original, with Gere’s compulsive criminal, now very clearly a sociopath, killing a cop, living on the lam, and even resurrecting several of Belmondo’s gestures, such as his uses for newspapers. Instead of Bogart, he idolizes the Silver Surfer, which I like if for no other reason than every time he reads a Silver Surfer comic Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s magical, woozily beautiful Evening Star bubbles up on the soundtrack. These are for me the best moments in the movie.

But man, there’s something unnerving about Gere talking to himself (sometimes in funny voices, sometimes vaguely ethnic), or singing (Jerry Lee Lewis), or dancing, with such utter, blazing conviction. I mean it. You have to admire it. Gere's on fire here, and it can be tough to watch. You might say that something in his performance, along with aspects of the narrative itself, looks forward to Nicolas Cage and his Elvis-loving Sailor in
Wild at Heart (1990), though the latter film is obviously far more focused and confident in its stylistics, even if its particular mania has proved equally divisive. It’s amazing how much of Breathless Gere manages to spend shirtless, the character’s narcissism dovetailing nicely with what would appear to be the actor’s. “I know I’m crazy,” he says. “I can’t help it.” Poor guy. But here's the sticky question: are we actually supposed to like him? It’s hard to tell, and it only gets harder as thing go on. And on, and on. There’s a bit where Gere and the girl get busy in a movie theatre while Gun Crazy (1950) plays behind them. I found myself wishing they’d get out of the way so I could just watch Gun Crazy. At one point we see a bus stop advertising the Hollywood Wax Museum. It’s very apt. McBride’s adoration of cinema’s past lacks the same level of critical inquiry or playfulness we find in Godard (that's a lot to live up to, I know), so his Breathless, however curious an artifact, however weirdly entertaining, feels only intermittently breathless and rather often lifeless.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The unforgettable Fire

For some reason
Quest For Fire (1981) was one of the first movies I bought on DVD, and ever since I’ve had a hard time convincing people to watch it with me and I don’t understand why. It’s set 80,000 years ago. It was directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and adapted from J.H. Rosny aîné’s novel by frequent Polanski collaborator Gérard Brach, with everybody speaking pre-historical lingo created by Anthony Burgess. It inspired a song by Iron Maiden and a band from Toronto. It was filmed in Iceland, Scotland, Kenya, and in the badlands of Alberta where I once roamed as a boy, and its landscapes are beautiful and vast.

There are various tribes in
Quest For Fire, representing various stages of man’s evolution. The story follows a trio of Neanderthals who, not knowing how to build a fire, go out in search of one they can steal and bring back to their friends. The Neanderthals resemble an especially hirsute hippie desert death cult whose members drank the Kool-Aid and lived, except that in doing so they lost the capacity to form sentences, seem permanently stoned, and are now forced to constantly breathe through their mouths. Violence is everywhere, and women have it especially tough: rape is a casual occurrence. But we see our heroes improvise peace summits with wooly mammoths and fend off a bear. Ron Perlman (in a role that would threaten him with a strange sort of typecasting) discovers the humour in head injuries. Edmontonian Rae Dawn Chong invents the missionary position. One guy attempts to castrate another with his teeth. Everyone’s always panting, crying, salivating, jabbing, screaming, pointing, humping, waddling, running, grunting: being an actor in this movie would have been awesome. In fact several sequences are very much like some acting workshops I’ve attended.

My special fondness for
Quest For Fire probably can’t be entirely explained, but I always visit museums of natural history in every city I pass through (I love the dioramas), and my favourite part of 2001 (1968) by far was always the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence, so perhaps some part of me just instinctively responds to tribal frenzy, inarticulate yearning, and unkempt hair. Edmonton's Metro Cinema is showing Quest For Fire as part of their ‘Turkey Shoot’ series, but this is no turkey. It’s rich and fascinating, and, for obvious reasons, really, really funny.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Salt of the earth: Araya on DVD

Margot Benacerraf, now in her 80s, only ever made one feature-length film, but that film remains so extraordinary, so very nearly singular, that it merits an admiration on par with many more prolific and esteemed bodies of work. After studying and gathering numerous influential allies in France and elsewhere, Benacerraf returned to her native Venezuela, specifically to an island no one had heard of, though when discovered by the Spanish 450 years earlier it was deemed a sort of paradise on account of its abundance of one resource: salt, as valuable back then as gold. We can see the ruins of colonial fortresses erected to protect the island and its salt marshes, once the center of piracy in the Caribbean, during the prologue of
Araya (1959). But historical context quickly gives way to the seeming timelessness of hard labour, to Benacerraf’s lyrical approach to depicting the life of a community that was, at the time, so isolated as to resemble some primordial dream. Araya is now available on DVD from Milestone, the latest lost masterpiece resurrected by the same beloved company that re-released Killer of Sheep (1977) and The Exiles (1961).

Part ethnographic study, part homage to the workers of the developing world, part tone-poem with traces of artifice or subtle exaggeration lining its documentary foundations, Araya mainly recalls antecedents that can only be labeled documentaries in the vaguest sense: Luis Buñuel’s
Land Without Bread (1933), the midpoint fishing sequence from Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), or Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955). Araya’s astounding images reveal a closed world formed of sand, sea, sun and salt, and not much else. Each of its inhabitants works in some capacity related to the salt industry. Long lines of shirtless men carry brimming baskets on their heads to add to immense pyramids of salt. Men break down mounds of salt with sticks in unison, women preserve fish in salt, children sift salt. The arrival of the water truck is a major event in this place where it never rains and there are no springs or lakes, where some of the older women’s faces are so dry with salt and sun that appear almost mummified. An especially memorable face belongs to a cigar-chomping old woman who walks into a cemetery with her granddaughter, where in lieu of flowers graves are adorned with shells. Araya’s narration (there are two voice-over tracks on Milestone’s disc, one Spanish, one French, both with English subtitles) strains to remind us that these people do nothing other than work, sleep and eat.

Nothing grows here; all life comes from the sea; life is work and work only:
Araya’s narration conveys a number of immensely interesting facts, but it's also mercilessly repetitive, focuses on certain individuals without allowing them to reveal much in the way of individual personalities, and gradually becomes a major distraction. You begin to wonder if the narration is really needed at all. One could argue that it keeps you from paying as close attention as you might otherwise, that it stifles discovery. Surely the images and diegetic sounds, including those strange, haunting work songs, are more than enough to at once captivate and inform us, right up to the film’s elegantly portentous closing scenes, in which the island’s process of extraction, unchanged for centuries, is on the verge of massive change with the approach of modern industry. Let's be clear: Araya is a masterpiece. I urge you to see it. I just wish that Benacerraf’s incredible assembly of sights and sounds were allowed to speak for itself.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Traveling Light: Kelly Reichardt: New Auteurs

River of Grass

The pair meet at a bar, shortly after the guy nearly hits the girl with his car on a dark rural road. “You’re not from around here, are you?” asks the girl. “Nope,” the guy replies, “I’m from Dade.” A seemingly unremarkable exchange, until you consider that the bar these lonesome souls occupy lies somewhere in Broward County, somewhere apparently very close to the Broward/Dade County line. The exchange then becomes ironic, except that the girl and the guy don’t seem to find it all that funny. These lovers on the run in Kelly Reichardt’s debut
River of Grass (1994) inhabit what many viewers would deem a decidedly small world, but to them their immediate surroundings feel just as vast and difficult to traverse as any sea or continent. This is a road movie where the protagonists can’t get past the first tollbooth, having embarked on a crime spree with very little in the way of actual crime. At one point the girl (actually a woman, probably in her early 30s) mentions how every place seems the same. This may be a subtle wink to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), in which a similar sentiment is expressed when it’s New York-based protagonists find themselves in Florida, which just so happens to be the setting of River of Grass. (Reichardt’s vision of Florida, dingy, eccentric, a place for wanderers, seems somewhat akin to that of novelist Joy Williams). But in this context, the sentiment assumes new hues, because the person who expresses it has hardly gone anywhere.


River of Grass feels very much like a first film (albeit one by an unusually gifted maker of exceedingly personal films) in that it carries the traces of an artist trying out as many things as she can (the camera movements, the cutting, and the use of voice-over would be tempered or eschewed altogether in her future work) and still craft something with an unmistakable signature. That word, signature, calls to mind things written by hand, and things handmade. The first word expressed in Reichardt’s newest film, Meek’s Cutoff (2010) isn’t spoken but rather traced upon a stone: “LOST.” There could be no better single-word summary of Reichardt’s body of work thus far, stories about people trying to get somewhere and having a tough time of it, unassuming, quiet films made with the bare minimum of participants and equipment. A record gets played in River of Grass: a rendition of ‘Traveling Light.’ A theme song perhaps. Reichardt has often spoke in interviews about her refusal/inability to “move up” to larger scale productions (something that helps explain the decade’s hiatus between her first and second features). This should not be mistaken for lack of ambition. On the contrary, one of the things that make her one of the finest, most distinctive, rigorous American filmmakers alive is her ability to cultivate so much feeling, atmosphere, narrative, character development, and even polemic out of the simplest of stories (many of them coming from collaborations with Jonathan Raymond) and humblest of materials.

Meek's Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt’s mesmerizing western about homesteaders lost in 19th century Oregon, seen largely through the eyes of women, opens today at TIFF Bell Lightbox, and I urge you to see it. The film’s Toronto premiere has also prompted a most welcome retrospective of Reichardt’s work. They’re showing everything save the short-shorts. (1999’s Ode, a mid-length work, shot on Super 8, which I’ve been waiting years to see, screens on Sunday afternoon.) River was last night, but still to come are multiple screenings of Meek’s, two screenings of Old Joy (2005), two of Wendy and Lucy (2008), and one screening of Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952), which was selected by Reichardt for TIFF’s Carte Blanche series. The retrospective is part of TIFF’s New Auteurs series.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The crazies must be gods: Thor

Hulking Norse warrior Thor (Chris Hemsworth) meets fetching New Mexican astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman) late one night while she and her assistants chase atmospheric disturbances in the desert. They get off to a bumpy start: she hits him with her van—twice—and he knocks her for a loop by claiming to be from Asgard and offering a revisionist approach to mapping the galaxy. Still, they hit it off. I’d love to tell you that this is how
Thor begins. It would be so much more fun if, at least for a while, we could wonder if this was some sort of whacked romantic comedy, if our protagonist really might be some homeless, mentally ill Aryan with a gym pass and the unlikely hottie scientist wants to gobble him up him anyway. Alas, we already know he’s the genuine god of thunder thanks to a protracted prologue about the War with the Frost Giants and the troubled state of affairs in the glowing, surprisingly multicultural and deadly boring kingdom from which Thor has recently been exiled.

How cleaner, more compelling and a lot less stodgy and fanboy-tailored
Thor might have been without that whole prologue (which consumes an entire quarter of the running time) or, for that matter, everything that happens in Asgard, where everyone delivers their stilted dialogue like bad theatre (the director is none other than pop Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh), no one has a sense of humour, and despite all the backstory the rules of godly combat remain incoherent: Thor is a rare example of a movie who's plot turns on a literal deus ex machina. Best WTF?! moment: Jeremy Renner shows up in the middle of this thing to do nothing but aim his bow and arrow at Thor.

At bottom, this adaptation of the Marvel Silver Age superhero comic is about dynasty. Thor was supposed to inherit the crown from his dad, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), but his response to an unexpected security breach proves that he hasn’t matured enough: Thor’s still too vain, cocky, a bearded banger dandy who would not look at all out of place playing bass for Maiden. So dad takes away his hammer and flings him to the mortals. Thor’s brother meanwhile is an insidious little rat trying to sneak his way to the top. They call him Loki, but trust me, there’s nothing low-key about this guy once he gets going. Eventually they’ll have to duke it out on earth and in the heavens, but their unfathomable powers, bathed in special effects, render their fights far too abstract to pack any real punch.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Those summer nights...

Anyone who’s lived in a cold climate knows there are certain rites that seem only to transpire during the summer, and the briefer the summer, the more urgently those rites are conjured. In anticipation of summer, Criterion has released two films on blu-ray that brilliantly examine the sort of bacchanalian follies that accompany the coming season.

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) was Ingmar Bergman’s first international hit, reuniting Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand, the nimble, charismatic stars of Bergman’s A Lesson in Love (1954), which like Smiles, is a romantic comedy, a genre Bergman rarely worked in (in the cinema at least) despite his obvious facility. Set in 1901, thus taking just enough historical distance to emphasize how little the nature of romantic entanglements alters with shifts in social mores, the film is indeed very funny. It’s also, more characteristically for Bergman, sexy, poignant, and painful. Smiles on a Summer Night is funny precisely because it’s painful.

Fredrik Egerman (Björnstrand) is an attorney sliding into middle age, attempting to soften the blow by marrying a woman less than half his age. He treasures her more than he desires her. He has photographs taken of her that he admires with the pride of ownership. Or paternity. Fredrik also has a son, roughly the same age as his new bride, who studies theology, broods almost professionally, is agonizingly self-absorbed, and tries to seduce the maid (Harriet Andersson) with lectures on virtue.

Desirée Armfeldt (Dahlbeck) is an actress. Closer in age to Fredrik (Dahlbeck was only 25, but possessed a preternatural, very sensual maturity), she was once his mistress. These days she has a thing going with a married, mustachioed, clownishly egomaniacal military officer, but it seems to have run its course. (One of my favourite lines is spoken in venomous deadpan by the officer’s jealous, deeply tormented wife: “Men are horrible, vain and conceited. And they have hair all over their bodies.”) An unexpected reunion with Fredrik inspires Desirée to hatch a plan that will correct the current flawed romantic geometries. It all goes down in her wealthy mother’s country mansion. Fredrik and his wife and son, the officer and his wife, not to mention their lusty servants, are all invited. The plan involves wine infused with mother’s milk and stallion sperm, a duel, chambers custom designed for facilitating extramarital sex, and at least one attempted suicide. The suicide, incidentally, is a comic highlight.

The characters in
Smiles are archetypes of a sort, types that especially recall Chekhov. Like Chekhov, Bergman fills out these types with loving details and idiosyncratic comic exaggerations that his superb cast executes with nuance and efficiency. The result is a film at once delightful and quietly knowing, about age, gender roles, heartache, and the tumult so often left in true passion’s wake.

Fat Girl (2001), perhaps the most perfect work from writer/director/provocateur Catherine Breillat, concerns the sexual initiations experienced by two sisters during summer holiday. The elder, more attractive sister, 15-year-old Elena (Roxanne Mesquida), meets an Italian law student. One night, in a disquieting, transfixing, all-too-recognizable bravura early sequence, he uses his powers of negotiation to shamelessly guilt-trip Elena into anal sex (anal, he promises, doesn’t count). The sisters share a bedroom in the family’s summer cottage, thus the younger, overweight sister, 13-year-old Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), witnesses the entire transaction. She becomes an absorbing mirror.

Breillat’s camera seems always to be moving, but slowly, not prowling but studying, never intrusive, yet never strictly observational either.
Fat Girl, which follows the events of this fateful summer to their abrupt and arresting conclusion, is built upon relatively few episodes, a model of concision, yet every sequence breathes: nothing is rushed. Breillat’s work repeatedly examines female sexual persona in a way that feels almost compulsively subversive, pushing equally against erotic sentimentality, male fantasies and feminist conventions with formal rigour, intellectual confidence and almost always, somehow, a sense of play. There are too many risks being taken in Fat Girl, too much spontaneity and exploration, for it to feel schematic. And I don’t know that Breillat’s ever found anyone who’s embodied her sensibility more acutely than Reboux, who was discovered by Breillat in a McDonald’s. Pretending that two posts in a swimming pool are her fiancé and lover, lifting her nightgown to examine her barely formed breasts and whisper to herself “putain,” letting her sister ostensibly comfort her by shoving a giant toast into her mouth, Reboux gives one of the most remarkable, unaffected and devastating performances of the last decade.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hiding all over the world: Hot Docs 2011

The 2011 edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival draws to a close today in Toronto, where the belated arrival of spring has failed to lure filmgoers away from lining up and huddling into theatres throughout the city. I’m at least sitting near a sun-warmed window as I write this, my report on some of the festival’s highlights, in a quiet converted coach house deep in Parkdale, hidden off Sorauren Avenue, where it’s slightly easier to reenter my unlikely to ever be realized fantasy of hiding from the world altogether.

The hermits, monks, freaks, fascists, dropouts, druggies and survivalists of French filmmakers Laure Flammarion and Arnaud Uyttenhove’s
Somewhere to Disappear, all of them male, all of them American, all of them unmistakably incurable misfits of one kind or another, have gone to greater lengths to hide from the world than most of us could ever fathom. Flammarion and Uyttenhove’s film is the product of a protracted road trip with US photographer Alec Soth, who has forged an ongoing project out of making portraits of those who have attempted to fall off the grid, nearly all of whom, ironically, are more than happy to be photographed and to talk about their lives once tracked down in their hovels, shacks, caves and campsites. Soth spends part of Somewhere to Disappear shopping around for a remote piece of land of his own, yet he confesses that what appeals to him is not genuine escape from civilization but “the idea of escape.” He’s an artist, not a recluse. He wants to get a lost a little, “to be carried along,” yet he keeps a GPS on the dashboard of his minivan. He’s our surrogate, cruising the outer margins to convey the eerie allure and obvious hazards of life lived in rejection of all we take for granted. The filmmaking in Somewhere to Disappear is (perhaps inevitably) grubby, lacking the distinct highly personal perspective, craft and precision of Soth’s work, but it ultimately serves its theme very well, evoking a sense of rough roads rarely taken, rabbit holes in a world hard at work to keep its every corner tracked and measured, hovering in cyberspace.

Bobby Fischer tried to hide from the world, but it’s not so easy to pull off when you’re the greatest chess player in history, an ideological pawn in Cold War one-upmanship, and quite probably, and flamboyantly, mentally ill. Liz Garbus’
Bobby Fischer Against the World attempts to map out Fischer’s story, his peculiar and precarious sort of single-minded genius, his uneasy relationship with fame and urge toward isolation, his erratic behaviour and the grotesque politics he adopted late in life. She doesn’t entirely succeed, utilizing a treasure trove of archival images and footage and drawing upon a number of fascinating interviews with Fischer’s colleagues, but arranging these pieces into a somewhat muddy narrative arc that more than once abandons the path it seems briefly invested in. If you don’t know chess deeply, the film doesn’t help you much, and once it does begin to offer some insights, it does so only after working through the period in Fischer’s life when understanding chess is most useful. The general style of this HBO production is perfectly conventional, though, given the amount of biographical information and cultural context it wants to convey, its structure finally feels not quite conventional enough. Still, Fischer’s a fascinating figure who couldn’t resist the opportunity to expose some parts of his troubled psyche to the public, so the film, flawed or not, is very much worth watching.

The Forgotten Space (pictured both above and in the lead-off image), easily the finest work I caught at Hot Docs this year, is a collaboration between photographer Allan Sekula and theorist Noël Burch, a sort of follow-up to Sekula’s 1995 book Fish Story. This “film essay,” shot on both Super 16mm and digital video, traverses the world to investigate the global transportation industry, so much of which remains hidden or invisible to consumers, exploits labour, and undercuts the economies of developing countries. Sekula and Burch are especially interested in sea transport, in the “floating warehouses” that, for example, carry cod from the North Atlantic to China for cheap filleting and then sends it back again, or moves American wastepaper to recycling factories in the developing world. 90% of the world’s commerce travels by sea, packed into shipping crates than renders the cargo anonymous, unloaded in yards where its shuffled around by robots and rarely inspected, even in the post-9/11 US. As an elegantly structured critique of late capitalism whose visual refrain is an image of ships sailing onward, it’s tempting to think of The Forgotten Space as the coherent version of Godard’s Film Socialisme, but this is finally a very distinct, arguably singular kind of film, its discourse so thoroughly grounded in interviews (with laborers, with historians, with the homeless) that you occasionally forget how exactingly conceived it all is.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A price and consent: Chester Brown on sex, choice, and Paying For It

Paying For It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John (Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95) begins with a depiction of the author’s amicable break-up with his third and what turned out to be final girlfriend, the actress and former VJ Sook-Yin Lee. The year is 1996. Chester Brown was only in his mid-30s. In the subsequent decade and a half Brown neither became a monk nor decided her preferred his own gender. Rather, after some hesitation, he started visiting sex workers, very gradually arrived at the conviction that what we conventionally call romantic love is bullshit, and that the world’s oldest profession is not only acceptable but that its decriminalization was a cause worth fighting for. Brown, who previously authored a celebrated comic-strip biography of the contentious 19th century Métis leader Louis Riel, is an intelligent, even-tempered artist whose work is consistently engaged in issues of individual freedom. Paying For It is an overtly politicized memoir. It’s not incidental that Brown has twice ran as the Libertarian Party candidate for Toronto’s Trinity-Spadina. (Monday’s election earned his 454 votes, placing him fifth in his riding.)

Paying For It is a fairly unusual graphical novel. An emblematic panel features Brown, rendered as rail-thin, his opaque spectacles obscuring his eyes, laying on his side, ding-dong dangling, in post-coital conversation. “My stuff’s quite different from Archie,” he explains to a sex worker curious about his profession. There’s much humour in the book, often arising from Brown’s politeness and uncertainty regarding etiquette. (Brown's customary neutral facial expressions, his Bressonian drawing style, if you will, also contributes to the overall air of deadpan humour.) One chapter finds him visiting a prostitute that continues to watch soaps during the entirety of their transaction. A not atypical line: “She began to lick and suck my balls. Not this again…” Brown is endearing in his attempts to communicate his needs with respect and clarity, but he insists that he’s a fairly typical john, and that the dangers associated with prostitution are grossly exaggerated or misunderstood. While compelling and entertaining, Paying For It, which features a number of sometimes heated conversations between Brown and his friends about prostitution, as well as a series of exhaustive, informative appendices, is very much a didactic book. That’s not slander—its didacticism is one of the book’s strongest attributes. And, once read, I can’t think of a single reason why any thoughtful person would dismiss it, regardless of how firm their feelings are on the subject.

JB: What do you think a comic-strip memoir about being a john offers that a strictly prose-based memoir wouldn’t?

Chester Brown: I’m not sure that there are advantages. In fact, there’s a disadvantage in it because of my decision not to show the faces of the women. It might have been easier to protect their identities in a prose work without the disguising device being so intrusive.

JB: Let’s talk about that. The book’s foreword explains how important it was for you to not include any details in
Paying For It that might endanger the privacy of the sex workers you’ve visited. Did you ever consider contacting some of them to ask if you could include their personal stories?

CB: In most cases I don’t think I would have been able to track them down. I’m not sure I would even know how to go about that. Obviously, I showed the book to the woman I’m currently having sex with. Other than her there are two prostitutes that I might have been able to get in contact with, but it didn’t occur to me to try. Maybe I should have.

JB: You’re meticulous about facts, very precise about dates. I don’t know that people read a literary memoir expecting it to be purely factual, and when you read a memoir in comic-strip form it’s that much more obvious that the form itself will impose a certain layer of artifice.

CB: You may be right. There was a point where I was considering doing
Paying For It as fiction. But because I really believed in this as a cause, I felt that the message would come across better if I was clearly speaking from personal experience, that creative license was not an option.

Paying For It addresses very thoroughly the question of romantic love and whether it holds any inherent value, but something that isn’t directly addressed is the idea of seduction. When your sexual activities are pre-arranged and the transaction makes explicit what’s expected from both parties, do you ever miss the ambiguity or anticipation of seduction?

CB: I never liked that part of romantic love, the uncertainty of what was going to happen. I can see why some people do, but it’s not something I responded to. I prefer things this way, where it’s clear what’s going to happen. Although things don’t always happen the way you hope. You can see in the book that in more than one case I ended up not having sex with the woman I’d arranged to see, so there is still some element of uncertainty.

JB: The most interesting narrative thread in
Paying For It comes from seeing your attitudes toward love and sex shift as you try to sort out your feelings and arguments about being a john. The book closes on a really interesting note, with your relationship with the prostitute “Denise,” one that’s gone on now for years and seems to be exclusive. Would you describe this relationship as your compromise between conventional romantic love and financially arranged sex? There’s the implication that you enjoy a kind of companionship, which some would consider the central benefit of long-term romance.

CB: It’s certainly a relationship that brings both of us some degree of emotional comfort, though without the disadvantages of what most people consider to be romantic love, what I call possessive monogamy. There’s that whole question of what is romantic love. Toward the end of the book I have several people trying to define it. Depending on your definition, I could characterize my feelings for Denise as feelings of romantic love, but there are surely some people whose definitions would not accommodate our relationship at all. So I’m leaving that a bit open. I have deep feelings for this woman, but because we’re not trying to pin it down, because we’ve made no formal commitment to each other, what we’re engaged in is distinct from what a lot of people want from romantic love.

JB: I’m personally hoping that you continue to develop autobiographical work. One of the demands of that path is the willingness to keep interrogating some unresolved aspect of your life. Now that you’ve published
Paying For It, do you feel there are any aspects of your private life that will remain off-limits, or is it all up for grabs?

CB: Unfortunately, there are things that do have to remain off-limits. We’ve been talking about Denise. You may recall she has that line where she says that she’d appreciate it if I put her in the book as little as possible. If I’d told the complete truth about our relationship and how it developed, that would have made a much better book. But I can’t talk about that stuff. I have to respect her wishes. I can’t see her changing her mind about that in the future. So she being a big part of my life means there’s a big part of my life I can’t talk about. With regards to other aspects, we’ll see. There might be some other interesting things that happen to me that I’ll be able to write about. I have no idea what they’ll be, but hopefully that’s part of what will make them relevant when they appear.